Almanac

News - March 3, 2010

Menlo Watch: Habitat ready to rebuild more homes

by Sean Howell

Habitat for Humanity volunteers are tearing through disused homes in Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood at a remarkable rate, dismantling non-conforming units, gutting kitchens and bathrooms, installing new plumbing and electrical lines, replacing windows and doors and laying down sheetrock and stucco to prepare the homes for sale to working-class people.

The renovations are moving so rapidly, in fact, that Habitat has asked Menlo Park to help it buy five homes in addition to the five purchases the city has already helped fund, as part of a program to purchase and repair bank-owned properties in a neighborhood that has experienced a rash of foreclosures during the economic recession.

The City Council could vote at its meeting Tuesday, March 2, on whether to grant $625,000 of funds from land developers to Habitat to extend the program. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the council chambers, located in the Civic Center complex between Laurel and Alma streets.

Habitat has bought five homes and finished renovating three since its work began in late May 2009. It plans to finish the remaining two homes by late spring, according to Menlo Park Housing Director Doug Frederick.

More than 1,000 volunteers, representing 42 organizations, have put some 6,500 hours into the task thus far, according to Mr. Frederick, who said volunteers are already lining up to work on additional homes Habitat might buy.

The foreclosure crisis is still chipping away at Belle Haven, Mr. Frederick said. One source estimates that there are currently 72 homes in the community that are either in default, at the point of a trustee sale, or owned by a bank.

Home Depot to fund 44 ECR trees

Home Depot has provided a grant that will fund the planting of 44 London Plane trees along El Camino Real in Menlo Park, according to Chuck Kinney, founder of Trees for Menlo Inc.

The new line of trees will occupy the El Camino median, stretching between Middle and Oak Grove avenues, Mr. Kinney said. Home Depot declined to disclose the dollar amount of the grant.

Menlo Park's public works department will help plant the trees.

More than 250 trees have been planted in the median and along both sidewalks since Caltrans approved the project in 2001.

City shaves budget deficit

Menlo Park City Council members found more common ground than they did last year in their mid-year budget horse-trading, coming to unanimous agreement on which capital improvement projects to keep in the budget and which to cut on Feb. 23.

Facing a projected deficit of $550,000 in the current fiscal year, the council agreed on cost-cutting measures that would leave the city only $300,000 in the red.

The city will defer a $100,000 capital improvement project to put solar panels in its corporation yard, and a $45,000 project to retrofit the council chambers. A $100,000 project to repair a storm drain on Hermosa Way will be allocated to a fund separate from the general operating purse.

The estimated deficit came amid sinking revenue projections eight months into the 2009-10 fiscal year, after the city entered the year with a balanced budget.

The unanimous vote was the result of a compromise hashed out by council members John Boyle and Andy Cohen, both of whom voted against mid-year budget revisions this time last year, asking for deeper cuts. Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson initially proposed that the city continue with all scheduled projects, and Councilman Heyward Robinson seemed ready to join her, before both accepted the middle-ground proposal forged by Mr. Boyle and Mr. Cohen.

City revising housing law

Menlo Park has revised the ordinance that governs its below-market-rate housing program, streamlining the document and adding several provisions to make life easier for people in the program.

Among other things, the revised ordinance would add provisions aimed at better educating applicants, facilitating emergency repairs, and making it easier for one- and two-person households to obtain affordable housing.

The revisions come as part of a joint effort between city staff and the Housing Commission, and some come in direct response to frustrating experiences with program participants. The city tweaked the wording of one clause after being repeatedly nagged about it by one homeowner, and added a provision aimed at expanded its education efforts after one family repeatedly applied to purchase a home without understanding eligibility requirements.

The City Council could approve the changes to the ordinance at its March 2 meeting.

City releases business plan

Menlo Park has released a business development plan, outlining general strategies for aiding businesses that contribute to the city's sales tax coffers, establishing metrics for evaluating business activity, and encouraging investment in the city. The City Council will review the plan at its March 2 meeting, having viewed an earlier draft in November 2008.

Go to is.gd/9hHj2 to view the plan.

Arbor Day March 5

Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline will mark Arbor Day with students from the Belle Haven Community School during a ceremonial tree-planting event at 11:45 a.m. Friday, March 5. The event will take place at 415 Ivy Drive. For more information, call Regina Wheeler with the city at 330-6740.

LED correction

In the Feb. 24 Almanac, we reported that Menlo Park was planning to embark on a project to install light-emitting diodes in city streetlamps, using either federal stimulus funds, or redevelopment funds. In fact, the city is planning to complete one project using redevelopment funds, and could carry out a separate project using stimulus funds, provided it receives a grant to do so.

Assuming both projects are completed, about 20 percent of the high-pressure sodium bulbs in the city's 2,300 streetlamps would be replaced with LEDs, saving the city about $28,000 per year in energy costs, according to Deputy City Manager Kent Steffens.

The City Council approved the projects in a 4-1 vote at its Feb. 23 meeting, with John Boyle dissenting, questioning whether the city was getting enough bang for its buck.

Go to is.gd/9hQvK to find out whether your block might be in line for LEDs.

The Almanac regrets the error.

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